Ambergris Caye, Belize
Belize is part of the longest barrier reef system in the Western Hemisphere. The coral mountains and canyons of the Great Mesoamerican Reef stretch unbroken for 750 miles, from Isla Contoy, on the tip of Mexica’s Yucatan Peninsula, to the Bay Islands of Honduras. Only Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is longer. Connoisseurs consider the 185-mile Belize Barrier Reef, with more than 450 offshore islets and cays and 500 species of fish, one of the world’s ultimate dive sites.
Almost 25 miles long and only 1 mile wide, Ambergris Caye is by far the largest and most popular of the cays. Its laid-back town of San Pedro is the reef’s most important starting point for more than 40 snorkelling and dive sites. Stylish Victoria House, a 42-room plantation-style inn, has a sandy beachsides location, infinity pool, and quarters that range from modest rooms to luxury villas. Don’t miss Elvi’s Kitchen, a former hole-in-the-wall that still serves its famous burgers for lunch but now also draws crowds with fine dinner fare, such as roasted garlic chipotle lobster.
Off the southern tip of Ambergris, the Hol Chan Marine Reserve offers one of the best diving and snorkelling sites for its sheer variety of marine life – here you’ll find 40 kinds of grouper, a forest coral, and sponge as dense and varied as the mainland’s jungle mantle. Nearby, the sandy-bottomed, 8-foot-deep Shark Ray Alley is home to a thriving population of gentle nurse sharks and stingrays that you can visit up close. Take a day trip to smaller, less developed Caye Caulker and dine on banana leaf-steamed snapper with papaya sauce at Habanero’s nurse a rum punch all day at the Lazy Lizard, a scruffy, open-air bar and grill by the Split, a channel formed in the 1960s by Hurricane Hattie.
Head to Belize’s three (of the Caribbean’s four) ring-shaped coral atolls. Lighthouse Reef is the most accessible, owing to a small airstrip, and is nearest to two of the reef’s most stellar dives: the fabled Blue Hole (called “one of the four must-dive locations on this blue planet” by Jacques Cousteau in 1970) and Half Moon Caye National Park.
Turneffe Island Atoll is famous for its wall dives, and the Elbow is the ultimate, with hawksbill turtles, hammerhead sharks, and the largest sea fans imaginable. It’s also a good place for snorkelling inn shallow lagoons, and the saltwater fly-fishing is world-class. With palm-shaded cottage on its own private island, Turneffe Island Resort – 35 miles offshore and reachable by air – is the ideal base.
BEST TIME: Dec – Mar for nicest weather; Feb – Jul for fishing; mid-Jun for Lobsterfest in San Pedro.